'Zebra companies' -- 'black companies' that hide their blackness with phony reforms

TOKYO —

“Burakku kigyo” (black companies) have lately embedded themselves in the Japanese economy, symptoms of hard times. Their “blackness” lies in three characteristic forms of employee exploitation: long hours, low pay and the “power harassment” of underlings by those above them.

What’s worse than working for a black company? Working for a “zebra company,” says Spa! (March 7).

“Zebra” suggests stripes, black and white, good and bad. Zebra companies, as Spa! portrays them, are of two basic types. Companies of the first type paper over abuses with superficial reforms that actually make matters worse. The second type is comprised of sprawling big-name corporations too complex to be wholly black or white – some of their departments and subsidiaries are the one, others the other.  Perhaps troubled corporations like Sharp and Toshiba can be said to form a third type whose members combine features of types one and two. The subject is complicated. Employees, it seems, can be made miserable in a great variety of ways.

A labor ministry poll cited by Spa! weighs the top 10 of them. You’d think low pay and long hours would top the list. What does instead is “workplace human relations,” which trouble 35.2% of respondents and likely include power harassment. “Quality of work” comes second (34.9%); excessive workload third (33%);  uncertainty regarding one’s employer’s future prospects fourth (29.1%); promotions and raises fifth (23.2%).

Whatever angst ranks uppermost in a particular employee’s mind, the average workplace is clearly a high-pressure, high-stress environment on which the government’s exhortations to reduce working hours have had little effect. If anything they’ve made matters worse, says labor consultant Shigeyuki Jo: “Work hours may have been cut, but workloads have not been.” So overtime that was once recorded and paid is now unrecorded and unpaid – though unpaid overtime (known euphemistically as “service overtime”) is by no means a new problem. If late-night work is curbed, says Jo, workers are forced to come in early in the morning; or more work gets fobbed off on subsidiaries. “As ‘labor reform’ proceeds,” Jo sums up, “it seems companies become more ‘white’ on the surface and more ‘black’ in fact.”

So it seems to have been at Sharp, the electronics giant that fell into dysfunction and was bought out in 2016 by Taiwan-based Foxconn Group. News report of its struggles were dire, but life within the maelstrom was surprisingly calm, says a former employee in his thirties who speaks to Spa! anonymously. Comfort, in fact, he says, was the poison. Nobody wanted to face reality, which went from bad to worse. His implication is that a certain measure of “blackness” is necessary in hypercompetitive times for sheer survival.

But where lies the line between an acceptable measure and excess? A certain “Mr Yazaki,” 36 years old and employed by “a leading food products maker,” feels himself on the wrong side of it.

It’s the more painful for him because his former boss, the one his current one recently replaced, was such an easygoing fellow, always thoughtful of his subordinates’ welfare. “People in other departments envied me,” says Yazaki. They don’t now. A management shakeup brought in a replacement from outside. Out for his own advancement, the new man pushes his subordinates to meet absurd quotas so he can claim the credit. “Get supermarkets to place our products in their warehouses long enough to photograph them there and include them in our sales report,” Yazaki says he orders them – “never mind if they buy them or not.” What can Yazaki do? He’s a subordinate under orders. He must follow them. It’s black indeed.

And how, one wonders, will the newly minted Premium Friday affect working conditions? Premium Friday – early release from work one Friday a month – is the latest scheme to force employers to ease up on employees and give them a bit of a life outside the workplace. For those who do get out early it’s good news. But how will they spend the free time? Shopping, dining out, traveling? For workers in those industries, suggests Spa!, Premium Friday could well turn into Black Friday.

Japan Today

  • 2

    Yubaru

    What does instead is “workplace human relations,” which trouble 35.2% of respondents and likely include power harassment. “Quality of work” comes second (34.9%); excessive workload third (33%); uncertainty regarding one’s employer’s future prospects fourth (29.1%); promotions and raises fifth (23.2%).

    This could be said about countless numbers of other businesses or corporations not only in Japan but throughout the world as well. This isn't a unique situation, and has been going on for as long as people have been working for someone else.

  • 0

    MsDelicious

    Sure happy I do not work for any of them.

  • 0

    Aly Rustom

    What does instead is “workplace human relations,” which trouble 35.2% of respondents and likely include power harassment

    having been there and experienced PH firsthand I can totally agree with this. Nothing in my opinion is more important than the work environment. Nothing.

    As for zebra companies, my guesstimate is that 90% of companies in Japan are either black or zebra.

    And how, one wonders, will the newly minted Premium Friday affect working conditions? Premium Friday – early release from work one Friday a month

    How will it affect working conditions? Not much. Even if implemented its still only once a month. If it was once a week, then we'd have something postive to say..

  • 3

    thepersoniamnow

    In Japan a abnormally high percentage of people lack the ability to stand up for ones own self and welfare. They don't know how to respond when someone totally oversteps the line, whether it be emotional or even physical.

  • 0

    sf2k

    go on strike if you want standards

  • 1

    MarkX

    If the gov't only followed the labor laws things would be different. But they choose not to, and thus people suffer and these black or zebra companies exist. I know that there are bad companies in North America, but it seems to me that most of them follow the labor laws, or if they don't they will be sued or punished. When was the last time any company in Japan was punished. Was Dentsu, even though the courts ruled that the girl who killed herself was a case of "karoshi". I never heard about it.

  • 0

    GyGene

    The government cannot legislate good or bad human behavior. A law won't change a jerk. This is a human problem, not a legal problem, unless someone breaks the law and the law in enforced. And, many people get totally angry when laws are enforced. Some jerks just need to be fired. Some jerks own the company. Jerks, I call'em.

  • -1

    Yubaru

    The government cannot legislate good or bad human behavior.

    Yes they can, and do, it's called the death penalty!

  • 2

    Ricky Kaminski

    Black companies, zebra companies with their cosmetic efforts to no where. There is a simple lack of quality leaders over here, people in positions of power that have worked out that riding your employees like this is actually counter productive. They are shooting themselves in the foot due to their own incompetence and lack of IQ. There is a wealth of knowledge out their about the benefits of a healthy , happy working environment. One example is Simon Sineks work. Its not rocket science but somehow.... in fact the world in general is suffering from a shortage of quality leaders. This too will pass.

  • 0

    roughneck

    Before people even start working, they are looking for excuses not to work. Most of this is because some of the "underlings" and "managers" have no clue what they are doing and how to improve it. They don't want any career, they just want tons of money for a mindless job.

    Japan needs to be strict on Labor Laws and also on the benefits that are given to people who are getting reluctant to work. That will force people to improve their skill set and learn.

  • 2

    sangetsu03

    go on strike if you want standards

    Work for yourself, and set your own standards. One need not be a wage-slave. If more people in Japan started their own businesses instead of surrendering decades of their lives to work for mediocre wages at a "safe" company, they and the rest of the country would be better off. New business starts in Japan are only one-fifth what they are in America.

  • 1

    Droll Quarry

    They don't want any career, they just want tons of money for a mindless job.

    This is certainly true in today's work environment and does contribute to the problem. Everyone thinks they are smarter than their boss, add in the obsession with "benefits" as well as the mentality instilled by a lot of higher learning institutions that once you graduate from their facility you will not have to start at the bottom... and you have a recipe for disappointment.

  • 0

    chisineko

    All this suggests a Union idea might work. The work load should offer an opportunity for entrepreneurs to start competitive ventures. Too much work for too few people.

  • 2

    Uehara

    long hours, low pay and the power harassment of underlings

    Well that's awkward..

    This describes exactly what it means work in Japan, doesn't it?

    Or am I the unlucky one that worked in about seven corporations and in every single one of them, all of these "traits" were basically a company motto.

  • 0

    Henrique

    But how will they spend the free time? Shopping, dining out, traveling

    Uhh.. working.

    They told basically that.. if the foreigners leave early, heads would roll.

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